Thursday, November 25, 2010

Joseph Wood Krutch: Nov. 25, 1893--May 22, 1970

The following is taken from the "Preface" to Joseph Wood Krutch's The Great Chain of Life. The "Preface" is written by Edward Abbey and includes his appreciation of Krutch and also part of an interview with him. (A side note: Abbey had sat next to Julian Huxley at a dinner and had spent an evening with George Gaylord Simpson and his wife at their home.)

EA: In the voice of Mr Krutch, I found the clearest definition in contemporary literature of what many of us have felt, emotionally, intellectually, instinctively, to be the central meaning of the word "civilization."

Civilization, we felt, if it means anything, and if it is ever to exist at all, must mean a form of human society in which the primary values are openness, diversity, tolerance, personal liberty, reason.

EA: "Have you any favorite books or favorite authors on the subject of the desert? on nature in general?" (I can't believe I said that. But, it's on the tape).

JWK: "From the standpoint of factual information I suppose Edmund Jaeger is as good as any on the Southwest. On the general subject of man's relation to the natural world I prefer the biologists who take what I call an out-of-doors attitude as opposed to the laboratory outlook. For example, Loren Eiseley, a beautiful writer, and the American naturalist Marston Bates."

EA: "How about George Gaylord Simpson? Julian Huxley?"

. . . . .

JWK: "Huxley and Simpson," Mr. Krutch responded, "come more under the heading of formal science than of nature writing, but they're both the best in their fields."

This was interesting. I had asked Dr. Simpson if he would like to meet Mr. Krutch. He said no. When I asked Mr. Krutch if he would like to meet Dr. Simpson, Mr. Krutch said yes. Is this one of the key differences between the formal scientist and a mere literary type--the wider tolerance and greater curiosity on the part of the latter?

EA: I said, "Isn't Simpson's approach to biology a great deal more mechanistic than yours?"

JWK: "Yes, but nevertheless he doesn't go the whole way. I'd much rather read him than a full mechanist. And Julian Huxley makes what I think is a responsible concession to my point of view, in that he allows at least some role to the idea of purpose in the evolutionary process."

EA: "Have you a name for your style of humanism?"

JWK: "I've come around, I think, to a form of philosophical monism, so I suppose you could call me a monistic-humanist. Or a humanistic monist. The terms don't mean much in themselves but they do mean that I am still not convinced that the universe is merely a machine, in the limited sense of that word. That is, I don't think it means anything to speak of 'materialism,' for example, because the potentialities of matter have just recently begun to be realized. When matter can be transformed into energy, we don't really know what the true nature of matter is."

EA: "Or mind? Consciousness?"

JWK: "That too. So that if one says that 'vitalism' is dead, as a theory in biology, he'd better add that 'mechanism' is also dead. It seems to me that the world is all one thing, not two. Mind and matter are not opposites but aspects of something underlying both. Matter becomes less and less material while mind is clearly one of the inherent potentialities of matter. But a lot of orthodox biologists are still unwilling to recognize this. They continue to think in nineteenth-century terms, assuming an absolute discontinuity between matter and consciousness, so that they're unable to explain how the latter can emerge from the former."

The following comes from the Krutch's "Prologue" to The Great Chain of Life and explains the purpose of this work.

This book makes no pretense at being a treatise. I am not a trained scientist; only what is sometimes contemptuously called a "nature lover." I have drawn from books written by learned experts and also upon my observation of living creatures other than man in whom I have long delighted and with whom I have perhaps more sympathy than some of those who remain austerely scientific. If I express opinions on subjects which some will maintain a mere nature lover has no right to discuss, it is because, having read much and observed a good deal, I am sometimes forced to the conclusion that the whole truth is not always represented in certain of the orthodox attitudes. The intuitions of a lover are not always to be trusted, but neither are those of the loveless. If I have also sometimes given way to that irritation which the layman often feels in the presence of the expert, I hope it will not be assumed I have forgot an essential fact, namely that I owe to the experts the technical information I appropriate.

In selecting examples of animal behavior for presentation in what is first of all a descriptive book, I have found myself usually choosing those which suggest a thesis that I hope will gradually emerge. Certain questions have been nearly always at the back if not in the foreground of my mind: To what extent is the animal that is doing any one of the thousands of remarkable things animals do aware of what he is doing? Doe he always do best what seems to be consciously purposeful? And-- since the answer to this second question is no--then what is the function of consciousness and why did it perfect itself in a world where, so we have been told, nothing persists except in so far as it has survival value?

We shall begin with the simplest creatures we know anything about and with the fact that they are not really simple at all. We shall then pass to others "higher" in the scale but from certain points of view hardly more remarkable. And we shall raise questions as we go along. If we end with some that are very fundamental perhaps some readers will agree they are at least legitimate questions.

Some of Joseph Wood Krutch's books about the Southwest:

The Desert Year

The Voice of the Desert

Grand Canyon

His books of social commentary:

If You Don't Mind My Saying So

And Even If You Do (
the obvious followup to the previous work)

The Modern Temper

And about this book: The Great Chain of Life? Edward Abbey has this to say:

In this book, The Great Chain of Life, first published in 1957, Krutch explores in detail many of the themes barely mentioned in my depthless interview. He begins with protozoa and ends with the human-- and the song of a cardinal outside his window, finding in the latter the suggestion that perhaps joy, not the struggle for survival alone, is the essence of life, both its origin and its quest. . . .In his unwavering insistence, to the very end of his life, on the primacy of freedom, purpose, will, play, and joy, and on the kinship of the human with all forms of life, Krutch defended those values which form the elan vital of human history.

Joseph Wood Krutch was a humanist, perhaps one of the last of that endangered species. He believed in and he practiced the life of reason. He never submitted to any of the fads, or ideologies, or fanaticisms of the twentieth century.

No comments:

Post a Comment